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Fire at Beit Oren
Photo: Dror Einav
Damage in kibbutz
Photo: Ahiya Raved
'Budding optimism' in northern blaze
Spokesman for Haifa firefighters expresses hope even as authorities fear fires in Kiryat Bialik, Tivon were arson; also chastises those who returned to Beit Oren despite evacuation. 'Lots of homes were ruined,' he says

A spokesman for Haifa firefighting services, Reshef Hezi Levy, said Friday that "optimism is beginning to bud" in attempts at extinguishing a forest fire that has already claimed the lives of more than 40 people and consumed some 30 square km of land.

 

The blaze is currently centered in two areas – near Nir Etzion and northeast of Beit Oren. Highway 4 is still closed as well as the road to Beit Oren.

 

 

In the afternoon two additional fires broke out in Kiryat Bialik and Tivon. Authorities suspect both may have been the result of arson because they broke out simultaneously in different locations and because investigators found a bicycle and a wig at one site.

 

"We are not investigating at this time, we are now in a war," Levy said. "But this certainly raises question marks."

 

Levy also called on residents who had been evacuated from homes in danger of being engulfed by the flames to stay away. "It's a terrible thing that people went back to Beit Oren. We don't want people there and we know police did not allow it," he said.

 

Describing the damage, he said, "I was there. There are a lot of burnt homes, environmental damage. Lots of homes were destroyed."

 

Rescue forces fear that should the wind change directions towards the south such communities as Ein Hod and Nir Etzion will be badly affected. Many Ein Hod residents who were evacuated remain standing on Highway 4 as they watch their homes go up in flames. "The biggest issue are the winds that blow intensely and prevent efficient extinguishing," one rescue official said.

 

Meanwhile firefighters from all over Israel were working with teams who had come to assist them from abroad. Two Bulgarian firefighters, Theodore and Garisha, joined a crew from Ramat Gan. "We came to help Israel," one said. "Yesterday when we saw pictures from Israel online, we realized that this was a huge fire on an international scale. When we were offered to come to Israel we didn't think twice."

 

Greeting greek pilots

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak visited the Ramat David Air Force base Friday and met with the Greek and Turkish pilots who came to assist in the extinguishing efforts.

 

Barak, in a possibly misguided attempt to boost morale, said: "Another Hanukkah with the Greeks." While most present were amused by the remark, Netanyahu appeared slightly embarrassed.

 

The prime minister thanked the pilots for their efforts and said he did not believe his request for assistance would be met so quickly. After greeting the crew members he climbed onto the plane and received a brief explanation on the aircraft.

 

Ahiya Raved, Hagai Einav, Attila Somfalvi and Yael Darel contributed to this report

 

 

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